A reader who has been a riding instructor for 10 years asked for my opinion on how to handle a difficult student. She agreed to wait for an answer while I put a post together to share. 

The student is a thirteen-year-old girl whom the reader has been teaching every other week for a year. The instructor has discussed the issue with the student’s mom and also appropriately with the student but nothing changes and now the rider is regressing. Is there a time when you decide to no longer teach them?

Caveat: Please keep in mind that I am not a psychologist. The following is only my opinion gained from my own experience.  

The Approach

Our instructor has taken good steps in talking with the mom and the student. 

I suggest a three-step process.

  • Your student is your main relationship. Talk with her first. Ask if anything is going on in school, with friends, or at home that she is worried about.The main thing is to get the conversation going. And it’s okay if this takes a few minutes out of the lesson. I’d go to the end of the arena away from the mom so the child didn’t worry about being overheard.
  •  Parents are another whole web to navigate. Sometimes talking with them will get the student in trouble. Personally, I’ve always found it difficult to “warn” early teenagers into good attitudes. But if you ask parents the right questions, you may obtain good help. Ask if the mom has suggestions for how to approach the issue.
  • Talk with the student and parent together. Encourage your student to discuss her goals with riding. Keep an ear open for the parent who talks for the child. This could be an indication that riding is their goal and not the child’s. 


I always make a point of discussing goals when I interview new students. I want to hear both the student’s goals and the parents’s, so I can be sure their goals work together.

I use a goals sheet with my sign up form. It helps me keep track of who wants to compete, who wants to own a horse, and which students want to ride for fun. I revisit it every few weeks to make sure I’ve not veered off into my own goals. It can be fun to see how goals change once students get a few months of lessons under their belts.

The Age is Difficult

The first step into the teenage years is a tough one. Happy-go-lucky kids can become moody and sullen as if having teen at the end of their age gives them certain rights to tune out the world and slip into their little universe. And I’m not making light of the age. Being a thirteen-year-old today is hard.  Pressures come from all direction. Choices come earlier, and bodies mature faster. And kids today are exposed to a lot more than I was growing up. 

Frequently, thirteen-year-old girls deal with embarrassing body changes that disturb balance and coordination. And hormones are a complicated maze for most kids. This is also the time when self-image and the need to belong become critical elements in a child’s life.

At thirteen passion for horses can be a huge help. The horse crazy kid wants pink polo wraps that match their pink schooling helmet or saddle pad. Even the most introverted horse crazy thirteen-year-old looks forward to lessons. And they may obsess about doing everything perfectly. It is definitely difficult to be thirteen years old.


Riding lessons are one form of instruction people come to willingly, unlike math class or PE (Just examples?). Student enthusiasm is a perk of teaching a subject students love. While student enthusiasm can wear an instructor out, it is also the energy that keeps us going when things are tough.

Everyone goes through difficulties and plateaus in riding. Enthusiastic students make commitments and they try, even when things are not clicking.

Riding requires developing muscle memory and strength as well as the practice to develop good mental habits. Commitment is a main ingredient to success. When not doing any other riding, taking one lesson every other week is such a small commitment that it hardly qualifies for the word. I understand riding is expensive and not everyone can afford weekly lessons, but I also understand driven students who will do anything to learn to ride well.

A lesson every other week works well for the person who has their own horse and rides every day. It works well for the person who has to haul their horse to lessons. It works when there is commitment. 


Our reader wrote the student had the following issues:

  •  an attitude, 
  • always excuses 
  • can be disrespectful
  • not open to learning

Even without further elaboration about attitude and excuses this hardly seems like a child who is taking lessons because she loves horses and wants to ride. That takes me back to goals. Who wants the child to ride? Is mom trying to ignite a passion? Did the child expect things to be easier?  Has riding become too difficult? Is she bored? Has she lost interest? What was she like when she started lessons? Were her original goals unrealistic?

Your Decision

None of us is the perfect instructor for every student. I always encourage instructors to have an interview process and to make accepting a new student a mutual decision.

It doesn’t matter if your potential student is a newbie or an experienced rider. You need to understand their goals and expectations, and they need to understand yours. At a minimum, you can expect students who want to learn to ride. When they agree to take lessons from you, they agree they want to learn what you have to teach. 

You can not be someone else’s incentive. And it is extremely difficult to succeed with someone who doesn’t want to learn. 

Whether to continue teaching a student is a personal choice, but please know you are not a failure as an instructor when you turn a student away. If it hasn’t happened to all instructors yet, it will in time. There will be one or two, maybe more, students with whom you don’t click. And there are students who want to learn that which you don’t teach.

 How to Proceed?

I recommend proceeding carefully. Most people do not handle rejection well whether they want to be with you or not. In the case of a mother and child, not only will you reject the student by ending the lessons, you will reject the mother. 

The professional way to handle this situation might be to have a discussion with the mother and child at the end of their next lesson. Go over the problems you have and discuss what you would like to see changed. Consider what you can do to make lessons more interesting.  Ask the student for ideas. Maybe ride in a different area, play some games, add other students to the class. Be creative.

Tell them that you will try two more lessons (in this case that covers a month) and if your teacher student relationship hasn’t improved, you will need to stop offering this class. Try not to add anything to the conversation that would seem accusatory, such as I can’t teach you with your lousy attitude. There is no sense being inflammatory. 

Trying for two lessons should ease the situation. You might be surprised and see a change in attitude. At the least you will have given your student the opportunity to attempt improvement, and you have provided a graceful “out.”

It’s Okay

Riding instructors usually strive to do their best, and we can feel like failures when things don’t work, especially with difficult students. We’re an extremely creative group of people and I’m certain that an instructor who contacts me with an issue has first tried everything in their creative tool box. Each of you who teaches deserves a pat on the back for your desire to help others succeed.

Now it’s Your Turn

I’ve given my thoughts on this difficult situation, so how about you? Can you offer suggestions for this instructor? Have you ever found yourself in a comparable situation? What did you do? Please share with us.

Thanks for reading The Riding Instructor!

Barbara Ellin Fox

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Barbara Ellin Fox TheRidingInstructor
  • I think this is great advice 🙂 Many ‘issues’ come up for instructors over the years and sometimes, you just have to let some riders go. They will hopefully find a better fit and you will have far less frustrations and headaches 😉

    • Hi Tracey,
      Thanks. I love your positive attitude on this. Most instructors I know go the extra mile to make things work, but sometimes it just doesn’t. Thanks for your comment. Barbara

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